Alabama result is a stunning defeat for Trump presidency
Democrats’ win in Republican heartland represents a seismic shift in US politics
Could this be the beginning of the end for the Trump presidency? A seismic shift in US politics unfolded on Tuesday night as Doug Jones, the Democratic candidate, rode to victory in the Alabama Senate election, defying all expectations and winning the first Democratic seat in more than a quarter of a century in this deeply conservative state.
The special election to fill the Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions, the long-time Alabama senator who was appointed attorney general by President Donald Trump in January, has been beset by controversy from the outset.
In many ways, the battle should have been easy. Alabama has long been a solidly Republican state. 63 per cent of voters endorsed Trump in last year’s election; the last Democratic senator to be elected, in 1992, was Richard Shelby, who subsequently switched to the Republicans. As American commentators put it, this was “ruby-red territory”, with Democrats holding little hope of breaking through and securing an electoral victory.
But signs that this election would be more difficult than anticipated began to surface in September.
Luther Strange, the Alabama lawyer who had been appointed by the state governor to temporarily fill Jeff Sessions’s seat, was widely expected to run – and win – the special election scheduled for December 12th.
But Roy Moore, a firebrand conservative judge, well known in the state, decided to also contest the election. Despite the Republican Party pouring millions into Strange’s campaign, and Trump endorsing Strange on the advice of Republican leaders including Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, Moore beat Strange in the primary contest in September.
Moore has long been a controversial figure in Alabama politics. A former chief justice of the Alabama supreme court, he rose to national prominence having been twice removed from the bench – once for directing federal judges not to uphold a 2015 supreme court judgment authorising same-sex marriage, and a decade earlier for erecting a giant tablet of the Ten Commandments outside his courthouse – both illegal acts.
Following his surprise defeat of Strange in the Republican primary, the candidacy became compromised even more as several women came forward to accuse the former judge of initiating contact with them while they were teenagers and he was in his 30s. One accuser claimed he sexually abused her when she was 14.
The controversy surrounding Moore has dominated the Alabama Senate race for the past month. Almost immediately the Republican leadership announced they would not support Moore – McConnell said in November that he believed the women who had accused Moore of assault.
Trump appeared to hold back, but last Friday he came out in support of Moore at a rally in Florida just across the Alabama border, at which he raised doubts about the testimony of Moore’s accusers. Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist, who is backing several anti-establishment Republican candidates ahead of next year’s midterm elections, also travelled to Alabama to campaign with Moore on the eve of the vote.
Trump’s support would prove to be a serious miscalculation. As the polls predicted conflicting outcomes on the eve of the election, by 9pm local time on Tuesday the result was beginning to emerge. Jones had secured victory, buoyed by a higher-than-expected turnout from African-American voters and Democratic supporters in general in urban centres such as Birmingham, Mobile and Montgomery.
Jones’s victory is a testimony to his integrity as a candidate – in a state that was synonymous with the dark days of segregation. He connected with African -American voters through his experience in prosecuting the bombers of the 16th Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, an attack that claimed the lives of four girls and was a turning point in the civil rights movement.
In contrast, Moore was a flawed candidate. Despite his evident popularity with a large swathe of conservative Republican voters, particularly in the rural areas of the state, the accusations of sexual misconduct with minors, doubled with his troubled professional history as a judge, ultimately deprived him from victory.
In the immediate term, Jones’s victory significantly challenges the dominance of Republicans in Congress. It has reduced the Republican Senate majority in the 100-seat chamber from 52 to 51, an electoral change that will be a serious concern for the party. Several Republican policies over the last year have inched through the Senate, and the party can ill afford to lose another member if it wants to pass major legislative changes.
But ironically, some Republicans may welcome the Alabama result. Since Trump’s election last November the Republican Party hasbeen waging an internal battle between the new firebrand politics symbolised by candidates like Trump and Moore, and the more conservative Republican politics represented by much of the Republican establishment, such as McConnell and Paul Ryan.
Moore’s stunning defeat may suggest that support for the kind of politician supported by Bannon and Trump is on the decline, particularly considering the fact that he lost in the staunch Republican state of Alabama.
Ultimately, the Democratic victory in the Alabama Senate election may serve as a wake-up call for the president. Trump’s ill-fated decision to back Moore has appeared to backfire.
Moore’s defeat is also likely to be welcomed by the dozens of women who have come forward in recent months to accuse men of inappropriate sexual conduct. At a time when the #MeToo movement is sweeping through America, the defeat of Moore is a sign that the kind of behaviour that appears to legitimise the sexual exploitation of women has no place in American politics.
Perhaps this will be the ultimate outcome of a special election that has become the unlikely lightning rod for political feeling in the Trump era.